On February 6, 2018, owners of the Louisa Hotel in Seattle's Chinatown/International District lead local media on a tour of murals depicting the city's once-vibrant underground jazz-club scene, which line a stairway down to a former speakeasy in the building's basement. Those and other murals were uncovered in the course of renovation work on the old hotel building. Constructed in 1909, the three-story brick building's upper floors stood vacant for more than 50 years, with small businesses occupying the ground floor until 2013. A fire on Christmas Eve that year caused its closing and subsequent renovation, and the rediscovery of the murals.
The building housing the Prohibition-era murals rediscovered during the twenty-first century redevelopment work has a history that precedes and succeeds the jazz age, in many ways reflecting the development of Seattle itself. Located at the geographic heart of the city's Chinatown/International District neighborhood, it occupies a quarter of a city block and is bordered by S King Street, 7th Avenue S, and Maynard Alley S.
Designed in 1909 by the Seattle firm Willatzen & Byrne, whose partners had worked at Oak Park, Illinois, studio of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the structure is the only historic building in the district that retains its original oriel windows, a common feature of buildings of its era. Named initially for the three Scandinavian emigrants who commissioned it, the Nelson, Tagholm, and Jensen Building was a single-room-occupancy residence of 120 units built to house Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants before they were sent to work in Alaska's canneries. Subsequently known briefly as the Hudson Hotel, within a decade it became the Louisa Hotel and has kept that name to the present day.
Music, Dancing, and More
In 1917, a social club founded nearby, by and for African Americans, marked the beginning of what ultimately became a vibrant jazz-club scene that flourished in the area. Centered around Jackson Street and 12th Avenue, nightclubs and speakeasies sprang up over the next 20 years, featuring music, dancing, and bootlegging. African Americans and whites played music on stage and danced and drank in the audience. At least two basement clubs operated in the Louisa Hotel during this time, accessed from opposite sides of the building. A Chinese social club called Blue Heaven was entered from Maynard Alley.
On the far side of the building, a speakeasy opened off 7th Avenue, where access was granted after patrons pressed a button under a stairway railing and slipped a card through a slot in a heavy metal door at the bottom of the stairs, which were flanked by the murals that would be rediscovered many decades later. A faded sign found among the murals reads "Club Royale." The site was the location of the Hong Kong Chinese Society Club, a notorious speakeasy nicknamed the "Bucket of Blood" for the club's custom of serving drinks in tin buckets (or "growlers"). Jimi Hendrix's mother was a server at this club, known in its day as "Seattle's most colorful, flourishing, and fashionable nightclub" ("Society Folk ..."). On February 11, 1931, federal prohibition agents raided the club, rounding up its patrons and confiscating large quantities of beer, gin, whiskey, and moonshine. An article the next day in the Seattle Star described the action:
"The alarm button was not touched. The orchestra was playing noisily, the 50 fashionable patrons were gulping their growlers of beer, no one heard the racket of breaking doors. They were not aware of the raid until the final door gave before the federal agents and one of them walked over to A. N. Baird, piano player, and snapped a pair of handcuffs on his wrists, thus interrupting his melodies" ("Society Folk ...")
On the second floor of the Louisa Hotel, more murals, decorative carved bedposts, and World War II-era graffiti listing servicemen's names and their ships indicate a continuation of a thriving, likely illicit, business in gambling and prostitution beyond the jazz age. The building also continued to house the Chinese social club off Maynard Alley. Renamed the Wah Mee Club, it was accessed through a succession of multiple doors, the site of some of the highest-stakes gambling in the region, initially catering mostly to Chinese business owners, later hosting people of all backgrounds.
Through the Years
The Woo family purchased the building in 1963 from William Nelson and Minnie Nelson Harris, children of an original owner. A succession of small local businesses -- including a noodle company, a pet shop, a restaurant, and Chinatown's first bakery -- occupied the street and basement levels. The upper-level apartments were left vacant, as their upgrade and repair (to meet city fire codes enacted in 1970 after two Seattle apartment-building fires resulted in more than thirty deaths) were too costly.
In 1983, the Wah Mee Club was the site of the state's deadliest mass murder, when three young men bound and shot 14 victims during a robbery masterminded by one of them, heavily in gambling debt, who was known to employees and patrons of the club. Granted access by those who could identify him, the plan was to leave no witnesses, but the multiple homicide count was 13, as one victim survived. Mastermind Kwan Fai "Willie" Mak and one accomplice, Benjamin Ng, were sentenced to life in prison; the other accomplice, Tony Ng, served more than 30 years, was paroled in 2014, and deported to Hong Kong. The crime was named the "Wah Mee Massacre," and the famed, now infamous, club was shuttered and padlocked.
Over the next three decades, the Louisa Hotel's upper floors continued to languish, its basement clubs also closed and forgotten. Small businesses occupied street-level spaces. On Christmas Eve 2013, a fire of unknown origin started in the late afternoon and quickly engulfed the roof and upper floors on the Maynard Alley side of the building.
Following the fire, on April 1, 2015, a partial demolition took down a section of the Louisa Hotel along the west wall, including the former Wah Mee Club, pet shop, floors above, and basement below, leaving the facade for future renovation of the building. A groundbreaking ceremony for new construction in the redevelopment of the building was held on February 12, 2018, with a procession that included community members, developers, and Buddhist monks, who offered a blessing and cleansing ceremony. The Woo family partnered with the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority to preserve as much of the building as possible. Plans for the redevelopment included 84 new on the upper apartments, restoration of 10 retail spaces on the street level, and a parking garage in the basement.
While working on the building following the fire, the Woo family began finding old murals in different areas of the building. Some were in the part of the building that could not be restored and was demolished; those were photographed before the demolition. Additional murals were found on the second floor in early 2018, depicting a peacock, a vase of flowers, and hanging paper lanterns surrounded by bamboo, and the family hoped to preserve them if possible, even if they had to be removed from their current location.
But there were some, like the Prohibition-era murals inside the entrance to the long-ago speakeasy on 7th Avenue, that they planned to preserve in place and open to the public as part of the redevelopment of the building. On February 6, 2018, the family made the rediscovery of the murals public as Tanya Woo led a tour of the building and its murals for participants including King 5 News reporter Ted Land and writer Paul de Barros, whose Jackson Street After Hours is a definitive account of Seattle's Jazz Age scene. After the tour, de Barros said, "I am so thrilled to see these murals, I’ve heard so many stories of underground clubs and passageways, and I've never seen any until today, so this is a real thrill for me" (Land, "Building Renovation ...").
The jazz-age murals adorned the stairway to the former speakeasy in the basement. Long after the nightclub's demise, the basement space was used for baking; the stairway was lined with a chute for delivering flour to the ovens, mixers, and stoves of the Mon Hei Bakery whose storefront was located on the street level above.
The life-size murals depict men in tuxedoes and top hats and women in long dresses with fur stoles, both African American and white, reflecting the integration of races and cultures in area jazz clubs, where musicians and audiences alike were not segregated as they would have been at the time in most other venues. The paintings signaled to club-goers that they were in the right place: They ushered and accompanied the patrons down the stairs to a door with a slot sized for a card whose bearer first pressed a hidden buzzer under the stair rail for entry. Inside, the music played and the drinks flowed, with dancing and singing through the night and into the next morning.